At the risk of incurring the wrath of Ryan (Mr. Ballengee if you're nasty!), I wanted to share something I've noticed lately about the LPGA. Consider the roles that illness, injury, and family crisis have played in the lives and the games of the top female golfers in the world. Paula Creamer started the season poised to make a run at #1, but between stomach, thumb, and back problems has done well just to stay in the top 10. Suzann Pettersen has had hip, back, and foot issues this season. Angela Stanford has not only had to deal all season with her long-standing shoulder injury, but cancer in the family, as well. Ji-Yai Shin has been sick lately and tired most of the season--and this is someone who played almost 40 events world-wide last year! On the flip side, consider how well Ai Miyazato, Michelle Wie, and Lindsey Wright have been able to play once they put their injuries--and the fallout from them--behind them. And how even a joyful transition like Lorena Ochoa's engagement can affect the world's best women golfer's approach to the game.
Even with a shortened schedule that's had plenty of breaks in it, keeping up with the rest of the LPGA's elite is no easy matter. Just look at the falloffs from Cristie Kerr, Ya Ni Tseng, and In-Kyung Kim of late. Or better yet, consider what those whose games are really suffering--from Jee Young Lee and Angela Park and Jane Park and Shiho Oyama to Mi Hyun Kim and Minea Blomqvist and Jennifer Rosales and Jeong Jang to Julieta Granada and Na On Min and Louise Friberg and Ashleigh Simon--have been going through this season.
Golfers who come here from Asia are in a position to understand the 2 key factors that make the LPGA such a grind. Just check out Momoko Ueda's blog, where she's had plenty of chances to reflect on why it's so much tougher on the LPGA than the JLPGA. Playing 72 holes most weeks is a lot more difficult than playing 54, the norm in Japanese women's golf. And the distances you travel in the States (and out of the country!) are much much greater than those come from criss-crossing Japan. When you factor in that many of the LPGA's top players are also playing 5 or more times a year on the JLPGA, KLPGA, and LET, you can see why it's so difficult to get to the top and stay on it or near it.
Sure, the rewards are huge in the greater scheme of things--even with overall prize money down significantly this year, the LPGA still has a chance to produce the most Million Dollar Club members in its history this season (although far short of the PGA's 80 and counting--the real question is whether the LPGA can have as many who break the $1M barrier this season as have broken the $3M barrier on the PGA!). And nobody's forcing the golfers to play the game. But these players are working hard for their money. After taxes and expenses, how much money are those in Moira Dunn territory (#75 on the money list at $113.8K and counting) and under really making this year? At the other end of the spectrum, Ji-Yai Shin will need strong finishes in her last 4 LPGA events of the season if she plans to win more on the course than, oh, say, Camilo Villegas. And off the course? Let's not go there.
One of the key things that makes the wide-open races for the Player of the Year, money list title, and Vare Trophy so compelling, then, is not so much what is at stake in them (Hall of Fame points, to start with) but what it costs to win them. The LPGA leaves the United States after this week and doesn't return until the Tour Championship in Houston. Here's hoping the golfy media chooses to recognize the sacrifices the tour's top players have made to get themselves into that field and give themselves a chance to win it all--or just make it back to the world's top women's tour in 2010.
[Update 1 (8:10 pm): And then the SI guys bring me back to what passes for reality in the golfy media....]